It wasn’t a masked ball at the Rod Laver Arena on Saturday, yet the final moments led to some spontaneous unmasking. Kim Clijsters of Belgium told the fans in the stadium that they could finally call her Aussie Kim, while Li Na was very cross with her own supporters, claiming they were trying to coach her in Chinese what to do mid-point.
Li Na has been the story of the tournament, and to her credit she has put a face to China and broadly some would say even to Asia. Her on-court interviews have delighted people across the world, and her tennis has won her many admirers. It was the first Grand Slam final for Li and also a first for the large continent. She rose to the occasion and came out firing in the first set. The experienced Clijsters was taken by surprise and she had no answers to the power and accuracy of the Chinese star.
It was something that even Clijsters acknowledged later. “She did everything better than me in that first set,” said Clijsters. “Her ground strokes were heavier, deeper, she served better and she returned better. She was playing really well, probably the best she has ever played against me.”
Clijsters was playing well, but Li was playing brilliantly and she took nine out of the first 14 games. That was where things started slipping away from her. Once her clear-sightedness was clouded by impatience, Li got flustered and struggled to get her composure back. She won just three out of the last 13 games as Clijsters tightened her defence and saw her opponent make a host of unforced errors.
Earlier, Clijsters needed some help from Li to get back into the contest and it was her experience and the relative inexperience of her opponent that turned the tide. “I tried to do things differently to break her rhythm a little bit and make her think a little bit more,” Clijsters said. “I mixed it up a little bit, put some slices in, also hit a few higher shots and it made her make some unforced errors. And then she got a little bit aggravated and I just tried to hang in there.”
This was backed up by Li’s claim: “If you haven’t got that experience, if you come across some problems, you can’t get out of them that easily. It’s not that there’s no way out, it’s because you don’t know how to find a way out.”
Afterwards, Li said: “I don’t know why after I got to the final I had so many Chinese coaches on the court. Of course they want me to win the match but they were trying to coach me how to play tennis.” Can the crowd be blamed for Li Na’s downfall? That can only be considered if the crowd can be credited with her winning the previous rounds and reaching the final.
“Be a master of your petty annoyances and conserve your energies for the big, worthwhile things. It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.” That could well be said for Li Na.
The witty and graceful Chinese player needed to keep her tunnel vision going and there was no reason for her to be paying more attention to the crowd than to her game. Clijsters had changed her approach mid-way in the second set when she started defending from the baseline and scooping some high balls for Li to hit from the back of the court. Li needed to be aware of what her opponent was trying to do and also aware of the fact that she was in the ascendancy.
Sadly the couple of errors Clijsters drew upset Li’s rhythm, and that is when she started getting bothered by the crowd. Clijsters used the occasion to get her rhythm going and squeezed out the second set. From there on it was Clijsters all the way. The final score read 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 in Clijsters' favour.
Nevertheless the experience would do a world of good for Li Na, and if she finds herself in the same situation next time, she may well be prepared to listen only to the rustling of the tennis ball. It would be wonderful if she treats everything else as just noise.